A few years ago, while working on my master’s thesis, I read about a fire in New Orleans that killed 32 people, mostly gay men. The fire, set by an arson, engulfed the UpStairs Lounge in the matter of minutes while its 60 or so patrons, who were hindered from escape by barred windows, unlit exits and thick clouds of smoke, scrambled to find a way out.
I was shocked by several parts of the story. First, the mainstream media in New Orleans and the rest of the country covered the murders and the fire as though the fire was nothing more than a means to get rid of an even bigger nuisance, the homosexuals.
According to a story published in the July 13, 1973, edition of The Advocate, the New Orleans mainstream newspapers placed the story on the front pages for two days before burying it 14 pages inside. The local press ran quotes from residents that ranged from, “I hoped the fire burned off their dresses,” to “the Lord had something to do with this,” which only fed the wave of homophobia in the city.
The national media also said very little about the murders. This clip from CBS News on YouTube has been circulated before, but I think it shows just how little most folks in the mainstream media covered the crime.
I was also shocked that I had never heard of the UpStairs Lounge fire until 2010. Was I that ill-informed? But I guess the story of more than 30 gay men getting murder in New Orleans isn’t going to make the history books—but the story of 30 straight, white men burned alive at a church service would have probably garnered a memorial and a national holiday (just saying).
Finally, I’m shocked that the arsonists/murderer was never official arrested or tried for what is now referred to as the worst hate crime in American history. Apparently a suspect was detained but never charged and then was never seen again.
This story needs more attention. It should be more well-known and recognized.
This semester I’m working on a media history project about the UpStairs Lounge fire, and I’m asking for your help. I have fairly easy access to New Orleans media coverage (newspaper) and some national coverage, but I would like access to other local accounts and documentation of the fire and the response.
My focus is on the media, but any and all materials will help to piece together the story. If you know of any one who was at the fire or any one who covered the event for the media, please let me know.
I plan on keeping you all up-to-date on the project as it unfolds. Thanks for your help.